The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge: Their Strange History by David Richardson


I read this book (The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge) as part of the literature review I carried out in preparation for researching my novel about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers. (This novel, The Running Wolf, will be published by Impress Books on 10 November 2020.)

The cover of David Richardson's book is iron grey with a line drawing of a Shotley Bridge sword. The title is in red script and the author's name in black type.
The Swordmakers of Shotley Bridge: Their Strange History by David Richardson

Chapter 1: About Swords

In this chapter, Richardson provides some interesting background on swords – mentioning that people often had more than one sword; for instance, they might have a black-hilted sword for mourning. Also mentions that cheaper swords were available for servants. He goes on to list some famous and/or mythical swords: Joyeuse (used for coronation of French kings); Excalibur; Durandel (belonged to Hector of Troy); the Northung sword (belonged to Siegfried and forged by him in a troll’s cave under instruction from a dwarf); and an unnamed sword that was stuck upright in the earth and worshipped by the Scythians. He goes on to say that cruciform swords were used to perform last rites, that the hilts of swords often contained holy relics and that blades were often engraved with runes. There is an interesting mention of Doppelsoldners (double soldiers) who were paid at twice the rate of a normal soldier and who wielded huge two-handed swords. He also mentions pillow swords, which, as the name suggests, were kept under the pillow in case of night-time intruders. Naked swords were rarely on view, so sheaths and hilts were often very ornate.

Richardson talks about the symbolism of the sword, and he says that he sees the sword as a symbol of justice for cutting out evil. In Japan, swords are religious offerings and must therefore represent purity, rarity and value; Japanese swordmakers purified themselves by pouring water over themselves and praying at the forge. There are some lovely descriptions of how Japanese swordmakers judged heating and tempering by eye: ‘At final forging heat the steel until it is the colour of the moon beginning its journey across the heavens on a June or July evening…After the final forging plunge the sword in water which has the temperature of water in February or August’ (quoted in Richardson, but no source provided, 1973, p.9). There is then a useful explanation of the Damascening (pattern welding) process, along with practical explanations about carbon content (1.5% or less) from ‘fine black dust of charred wood’ (p.12)

Richardson, makes a point about the likely smell of Shotley Bridge, ‘Among the many forges he must have inspected (and smelt, for the acrid hoof burning smell of the village smithy would follow him everywhere)…’ (p.13), but this must be speculation, perhaps based on his own experience of a smithy.

Chapter 2: Reasons for Leaving Germany

Richardson does give some credence to the idea of the swordmakers fleeing religious persecution and says that south Germany was largely Catholic, while the north was protestant. Following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Calvinist Protestants of France (Huguenots) were forced into hiding or exile; likewise, the Lutherans lost what protection they might have had (p.14). Many Huguenots fled to England, so it’s not unlikely the Lutherans might have followed suit. He also alludes to the ‘little wheels’ that threatened full employment in Solingen and mentions that the Brotherhood of Bladesmiths and the Guild of Blade Finishers protested against their use. (I wonder whether the speed afforded by these grinding wheels reduced the cost of production). So, according to Richardson, there was some risk of religious persecution, but also squabbling among the guilds and not enough employment, which may have combined to encourage large numbers of swordmakers to leave. He mentions that in doing this, they broke the Residence Oath and their Brotherhood Vows.

He goes on to say that Solingen denies making death threats, but admits to property confiscation. However, he provides no source for this statement. In terms of the indictment against the swordmakers, Richardson also mentions its late issue and speculates that as purges and disappearances were common at that time, officials may have turned a blind eye. He wonders (as do I) how the swordmakers felt on hearing news of the indictment. (Interestingly, he says that later defectors’ names were not nailed to their doors, but instead were read out in the pulpit in 1743 and 1770).

In terms of the swordmakers’ arrival in Shotley Bridge, Thomas Carnforth (the Newcastle swordmaker) may have acted as adviser. Richardson goes on to provide some local historical information, including about Mad (Ralph) Maddison, who was hanged for killing a laird seven years after the Germans arrived. Witches were also feared, and he names Jane Frizzle, a witch who lived at Crooked Oak near to Shotley Bridge. He also mentions the local legend that King Arthur and his knights lie asleep in the Sneep, adjacent to the River Derwent.

Chapter 3: Identifying the Immigrants by Name

Richardson questions the number of swordmakers named on the indictment and those who eventually arrived in Shotley Bridge (19 and 12, respectively). He refers to a Leaton being apprenticed to the swordmakers, which would surely have meant they broke their vows as Leaton Jr would have presumably learned their secret techniques. There are drawings of the swordmakers’ buildings and a photo of some swords (pp.25–26).

Chapter 4: The Shrouded Years – The Hollow Blade Mystery Begins

In this varied chapter, Richardson discusses the syndicate that managed the swordmakers, and an application for a patent and charter. He touches briefly on various wars and allegiances (including the Jacobites). Next, he touches on the swordmakers’ likely diet (but discloses no sources). He suggests they would have lived on home-made rye bread, cheese and butter (from low-yield milk), vegetables (but not potatoes), home brewed ale made from barley (spiced or warmed in winter), with pewter plates and wooden spoons used for dining. He lists the clothing for each gender, suggesting the swordmakers would have had leather breeches as well as standard breeches. Interestingly, he mentions the ‘cheap huts’ locally, which would have been entirely at odds with the swordmakers’ cottages, which were stone-built. He also refers to the swordmakers getting their iron from Pontefract (Dan Hayford).

Chapter 5: The 1703 Agreement – Herman Mohll’s arrest

Richardson refers to the court papers from the quarter sessions (Northumberland Record Office), and he mentions various letters and statements, so these will be useful to check when I begin the archive work. He explores the notion of Mohll’s involvement with the Jacobites, but dismisses this, saying ‘that no plots were uncovered’ (p.45). He also refers to there being only hollow blades dumped in the river (p.46), and wonders at Mohll’s release, suggesting ‘Herman Mohll himself must have been surprised and certainly must have sensed an unseen kindly hand’ (p.46).

Richardson then turns his attention to the ‘dunning letters’ (p.51) which are letters from Wupper to Cotesworth in 1712 asking for 40s to help out during sickness, and from Hartcop to help with rent. Adam Oligh also seems to have struggled, but as a yeoman was able to ask for a loan. It seems that only Mohll never borrowed money (according to Richardson).

Chapter 6: Last of the First Settlers

This chapter contains information about Dilston Hall’s involvement in the 1715 Jacobite uprising; while Shotley is nearby, Richardson points out that it is not part of the estate (although nearby Whittonstall was). Richardson feels that the swordmakers must have been besieged by both sides, and it would have been in their interests to remain impartial.

The book mentions a poem by Joshua Lax, which runs to seventeen pages. It will be worth tracking down as it describes the River Derwent at the time. Richardson says that Lax ‘surpassed himself in compassionate emotion and inspired poetry when he told the story of the refugee swordmakers. Even as his story again perpetuated the legend of the “religious persecution”, his eloquence satisfied my inmost feelings about the immigrants more than anything I had read’ (p.64). Richardson ends by mentioning the flexible swords made at Shotley Bridge and the alleged swordmaking competition.

The original list price for this book (68 pages) is 60p, but you won’t get much change from £20 for a copy nowadays, and some copies go for almost a hundred pounds. (I regret writing on my copy now!) Available from the usual online outlets.


Richardson, David (1973) The Shotley Bridge Swordmakers: Their Strange History. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Frank Graham.

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